First Things…


On my way to a midlife English MA, an undergraduate leveling course in linguistics introduced me to not only one more excellent teacher (Dr. Livingston, who had made a long ago professional/academic jump from math to English Lit and would subsequently retire to mind his cattle, his grandkids, and his bass fishing), but to the previously unguessed wonders and delights of other tongues.

I consider myself blessed to be able to read Shakespeare and Sam Clemens in the original. But there are concepts unique to every language, and finding the one that the Hurons have embodied in a single word was like recovering a treasure lost in a previous life.

Orenda: a song that asks without demanding, hopes without begging, prays without beseeching, empowers the singer without disfiguring and encumbering the soul with hubris. It is a humble expectation balanced by a fear tempered by a great determination. What writer could do without all of that condensed and crystalized into one shimmering word? Orenda.

With that in mind, I am offering here stanzas of a song composed from the odd scraps and gleanings of a life that began in the year when the B52 heavy bomber made its first test flight. For better or worse, my hands and head have gotten into more than a few odd places. The result has been some practical knowledge and a mixed bag of experience re: matters as large as death and fate and as pleasantly trivial as a paper party hat.

In any case–enjoy the song.

LMJ, Sept. 8, 2014

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Comfort Food

The annual mega-caloric holiday baking frenzy is over and I am left with one fruitcake, a few extra pounds, and half a jar of shelled pecans.

Every year, I swear that this will be the last time I send seasonal goodies to the several people who don’t appreciate my time and efforts (there are, of course, many more who absolutely do, and I’ll probably be struggling to get out those final pans of cookies and fruitcakes on my deathbed).  But like a migrating wildebeest, I seem unable to break from the ancestral path.  The holidays activate my normally dormant baking gene, and now, a month into the New Year, those lingering pecans still beckon, although from a slightly different quarter.  They whisper that they have it in them to make one more pecan pie.pecan jar

Pecan pie is a quintessential expression of Southern holiday cheer, with a calorie count roughly equivalent to the molecular density of a neutron star. For that reason, I normally forgo the pleasure in favor of lighter Southern treats, like blackberry cobbler.  But the discovery of a new recipe—the latest one features a hit of bourbon—can lower my resistance dangerously.  And the territory ahead is fraught with more than subsequent, unpleasant moments with the bathroom scales.  Personal history is where you find it—even unexpectedly in a back issue of Southern Living.

Pecan pie was one of the holiday necessities of my younger years.  My dad, a man of monastically simple tastes (The only jewelry he ever wore besides his wedding band were several sets of steel cuff-link and tie bar sets.  And to my mother’s distress, he insisted on swapping the initial yellow gold wedding ring for one in white gold.), had a strange passion for something as unashamedly, exuberantly decadent as pecan pie.  When the finish of thirty years in uniform wandered him and us, a wife and two daughters, back to San Antonio and the purchase of a first house, one non-negotiable criteria for said house was the presence of pecan trees.

For those who lack the time, there is a decent commercial alternative.  At least in certain parts of Texas.

For those who lack the time, there is a decent commercial alternative. At least in certain parts of Texas.

We wound up in a modest single-story wood frame with two enormous pecan trees in the back yard.  They were a domestic variety that produced a yearly crop of large, thin shelled nuts.  Only later would I discover the rich joys of the much smaller, hard-shelled native pecans that set fruit biannually and make up in flavor for what they lack in ease of cracking (the Chinese have lately developed a taste for pecans, and their demand for large, uniform, paper shelled nuts dispensable from a vending machine might, unchecked, hazard the survival of the old ancestral trees.  So I’ve heard.).

A lot of pecan pies rose from that yearly bounty, and I ate my share, to the detriment of my adolescent waistline.  But it happened only in my teenage years that I considered the strangeness of my dad’s taste for something that his kinfolk in places like Kentucky and Tennessee were unlikely to have known.  The pecan is warmth loving, one of the iconic trees of the Deep South; pecan pie wouldn’t likely have figured on the holiday menu anywhere that gets regular snow.

I’m not sure exactly when, but my mother, a Louisiana girl, one day solved the mystery with the sort of casual revelation that comes with a delayed fuse, and is liable to explode in many unexpected directions.

She explained that only months after their marriage (c. 1948), my father had inexplicably asked her to bake him a pecan pie. Slightly mystified, she had done so; he had tasted the result, and been instantly hooked.  But only later had he clarified his request, telling her one of the few stories he ever would of his time as a POW, how one of his fellow prisoners had talked and talked as he had starved with everyone else about his mama’s pecan pie.  Starving men spend a lot of time talking about food.

My mother never learned the name or fate of that southern boy.  But after four decades of marriage, before Dad lapsed into the coma that would end three days later with his death, a dam broke.  So I learned after, names and stories never spoken in all those years tumbled out, racing against a clock that was winding down to zero.

Perhaps the name of that boy and the rest of the story were there amongst all the accumulated debris of pain and memory.  Perhaps not.  Mom listened in bewilderment, wrung out with years of care-giving, feeling that mix of relief and pity and impending loss that made it impossible to catch any of it as it floated by and vanished.

So I am left with a mystery and a jar of pecans and an untried recipe.  Calorie count aside, I do not make pecan pie lightly.

LMJ 2.6.17

PS: courtesy of Southern Living and Ms. Sylvia Sublialdea, HUNGRY.TEXAN.COM–Utterly Deadly Southern Pecan Pie

8-10 servings

1/2 (14.1oz) package refrigerated pie crusts / 1T powdered sugar/4 lg eggs/ 1 1/2 c firmly packed light brown sugar/1/2 c butter melted and cooled to room temp/1/2 c granulated sugar/1/2 c chopped pecans/2 T all purpose flour/ 2 T milk/1 1/2 T bourbon/1 1/2 c pecan halves

Preheat oven to 325 F.  Fit pie crust into 10 in cast iron skillet. Sprinkle crust with powdered sugar.  Whisk eggs in lg bowl until foamy.  Whisk in brown sugar and next 6 ingredients.  Pour mix into pie crust and top w/ pecan halves.  Bake at 325 F for 30 min.  Reduce oven temp to 300 F and bake 3o min.  Turn oven off and let pie stand in oven with door closed for 3 hr.

( Suggestion {mine} : After eating, hit the gym extra hard and avoid the scales for a week.)


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Fun and Games

group-picAs often happens now, the conversation flowed around me.  The others in it were all young enough to be my children or grandchildren, but I was no one’s kin.  When courtesy requires, the young will make token attempts to include their own immediate ancestors in their circle.  But that effort has always had its limits; and those limits have been stretched considerably of late by the technology that has narrowed and condensed generational frames of reference into microcosms of experience as fleeting as a Text or a Tweet.

But still, unoffended, I listened.  Writers always listen.  For us, listening is the equivalent of filter feeding.  Like sperm whales straining the water for plankton, those of us who build and obsess with the written world are always listening for the turn of a phrase, the lilt of a voice, the idea or anecdote that will instruct, enlighten, or intrigue—or, best of all, explode into the image or thought that seeds a story.

So I listened as the discourse turned to childhood games.  There was talk from one child of the 80s about playing Star Wars.  The conversation turned inevitably to technological advancements in the age old enterprise of conning one’s parents re: homework assignments. General acclaim in this area went to a Millennial, now a lawyer, who was never in several years caught reshuffling and recycling a set of math assignments via the use of what I gathered was an online program intended to allow parents to better monitor their offspring’s productivity in that area…

The stories went back and forth. I listened, said nothing, and did my own remembering.

The children I played with—the child I was– played War.


Okinawa is a small place. Even 60 years ago, when this pic was taken, it was possible to get most of it, shooting south to north.

It was the war that our fathers had lately fought.  Very lately, now that I think of it.

The Battle of Okinawa began on April 1, 1945, and lasted for 82 mortal days.  American casualties ran to around 45,000.  The Japanese did worse–77,000 plus –and the Okinawans worst of all–between 50,000 and 150,000 dead, mostly non-combatants and reluctant draftees.   My Air Force father pulled a three-year hitch in Okinawa in the late 50s, and we Baby Boomers, knowing little of history and understanding less, played our games across the still healing battlefield of an island with the approximate landmass of LA.

In retrospect, I don’t know what my parents–any of our parents– were thinking when they let us loose there.  The sub-tropical forests and the deep swards of head-high habu grass (named for its frequent inhabitant, a really badass venomous snake called the habu), were full of unexploded ordnance, abandoned bunkers, shell holes, and other unhealthy possibilities.  There were empty Okinawan tombs as big as small houses, each such desecration a testament to the horrors inflicted on a gentle people who revere their ancestors, and would never willingly neglect them.


Sea Cave. Original gouache miniature by LM Johnson, 10.09.16

It was a playground surreal in its significance.  Once, on one of our normal family excursions to the beach, I wondered off alone and crawled into a low sea cave whose last occupants remained there.  At least, their skeletons did.  The floor was strewn with human bones.  I suppose these were the remains of Japanese soldiers.  The Okinawan dead would have been lovingly retrieved and buried by living kin or reverent countrymen.  The Japanese dead, I suspect, would have gotten no such regard from the people upon whom Japanese megalomania had invited the disaster of war—a concept, so I’ve heard, that doesn’t exist in the Okinawan language.

This might have been the same strange beach where I found myself tagging beside my father, looking at the countless small bits of oxidized metal that the shallow waves washed at our feet.  Okinawa has some beautiful white sand beaches, but this one was rocky and silent, and those bits of metal were everywhere.

My father said nothing; but he stooped once to pick something from the debris.  When he opened his hand, he was holding an unspent bullet.

It was, he told me, a tracer round intended to light a night time landing.  I wanted to keep it, but he tossed it away, explaining that it might still go off, and was therefore dangerous.  We kept walking, once more in silence, looking down at the metal whose rough edges and hard lines had long since been eaten away by the sea.

Only a lot of years later was I able to guess what we were walking through and imagine what had been behind my father’s silence.

My father’s war had been a very personal one for basic survival.  It had begun in late 1941 in the Philippines with the ill-advised retreat to the Bataan peninsula and the starving nightmare of the Death March.  It had ended four years later with liberation from a POW camp in northern Japan.

Medals and promotions don’t normally accrue from such things—although I do have his Purple Heart. I know, as I know myself, that he would rather a thousand times have been in on this beach landing and in the deafening thick of battle than in the silent hellish depths of that POW camp, unable to fight, unable to act, wasting, waiting, dying by minutes and inches.

It’s some game, this thing called war.

LMJ 12.12.16



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October Surprise

emptylotThis lot has been empty for about a decade.  Once—sometime back before the Second World War—a small house was raised on it out of the miscellaneous materials that Depression Era construction was likely to entail.  Pieces of discarded railroad ties, random chunks of concrete and rock, even the odd tree stump, served as a foundation while pieces of wooden railroad cars covered the walls inside and out.  Necessity dictated an approach to getting shelter that would in time become chic with and much admired by folks like the readership (this sometimes includes me) of publications like Mother Earth News.

But I doubt that anyone, then, would’ve related much to the concept of creative scrounging as a job skill.  The business at hand was the critical, unglamorous one of getting yourself and anyone you cared about out of the elements and safely beyond the reach of the careless and the criminal.

But whoever the builders were, they also did what people do in even the most straited circumstances.  They planted flowers.  There are still, here and there, wisps of the non-hybrid German irises, mostly white, that are commonly called cemetery flags on this side of the Mason-Dixon Line.  They are unimposing but sweet with the light scent that irises have, and a welcome means of softening the many hard edges of a hardscrabble life.

Nothing else of the sort was added, as far as I could see, during the years when the house was crumbing toward a sad end.  A critical corner was turned two decades ago when the last owners, a young couple, went their separate ways due to the husband’s inability to relate to the concept of marital fidelity–especially as wrapped up in the dual jobs of being a husband and father.  He hung on briefly with the girlfriend who moved in the day after the wife and children left; then vanished to be succeeded by a series of increasingly questionable renters, many of whom attracted the attention of law enforcement. Finally the bulldozers came and left nothing but the concrete storm cellar, which had long since become a hatchery for toads and mosquitoes while sheltering a few grateful snakes.

The neighborhood got much quieter after that, and the asking price of the lot discouragedspiderlily3 new construction. The grass and a few trees were left pretty much to their own devices.  And then, following the summer’s last mowing—prompted, most likely, by a complaint from the city– a day in early October brought a surprise.

Lycoris radiata—a member of the amaryllis clan, also called Japanese spider lily—is known throughout much of the American South as a passalong plant.  The bulbs are seldom offered by nurseries, and pretty pricey when they are to be found.  It’s better, in good Southern tradition, to get freebies from the gardens of elderly kinfolk and like-minded strangers.  Or to rescue them from the sites of condemned buildings, as I have.

spiderlily1Once planted, they can linger, unattended and unsuspected, for years, since they are dormant and invisible most of the time.  It is only in late summer and early fall that they announce themselves, when the bare flower stalks appear suddenly, exploding almost overnight into what looks like a single wildly exotic,  bright red blossom.  In fact, the multiple flowers all bloom at once, and the show, consequently, lasts for only a few days.  Afterwards, dark green, strap-like leaves emerge to nourish the bulb after the great effort of blooming.

How this single bulb got where it is is a mystery of spiderlily2several parts.  It was growing near the tiny slab that once constituted a back porch for the vanished house, which makes sense.  But the last person who might’ve planted it is twenty years gone in the wake of her husband’s betrayal.  It must have happened, year after year, that the leaves needed to feed the bulb to blooming size were prematurely mowed down, stunting the bulb.  Only in this October of 2016, after so many disappointments—which could so easily have killed it– was it able at last to bloom.

I made a mental note to come back shortly with a sharpshooter and a pot to lift this hardy survivor and replant it in a more welcoming location.  But someone returned with a mower before I could; once more, there is no trace of it.  I can only wait and hope that it will emerge again to offer its small, brilliant testament to the rewards of resilience and persistence in the face of long-running, generally unwitting opposition–a lesson apt to be most appreciated on the other side of many experiences of the kind.

Because I’ve noticed that people generally have a hard time seeing, let alone appreciating, things–even some pretty fine things–when they show up where they aren’t looked for or expected.

LMJ 11.07.16



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There are a lot of definitions of what it is to be human.  The one that occurs to me at the moment is that of the creature that goes to a lot of trouble to make and collect stuff, but just as relentlessly loses the stuff it makes and collects.

undiesCase in point:  this pair of obviously new men’s grey Hains cotton briefs found at the foot of an oak tree in a local cemetery.   The dog, whose continuing need for undistracted exercise had brought me to wander amidst the stones, saw–more likely smelled –them first.

They probably told him way more than they did me—although it’s not too very hard to imagine how they came to be where I found them.  The weather had been pretty decent,  and the boneyard in question is agreeably isolated–but across the street from a high school.  Such a private, low rent venue would not go unnoticed in certain quarters.

I am more intrigued by other, more mysterious lost things.  A few months after those cematary-shoeundies were lost or left at the foot of that oak tree, this single black lady’s pump appeared about 20 feet away.  But much more interesting was this unintentional still life that evolved at the head of a hiking/biking trail over a period of several days.

bootThe boot came first.  It was one half of a pretty decent pair of lady’s cowboy boots, size smallish, and it was placed carefully where I found it, on a curb by the parking lot. A few days later, someone added the set of keys.  A few days after that, both items had vanished.

I don’t know how long the glasses lingered, and I somehow think they were missed more than either the keys or the boot.  Or for that matter the black pump or those naughty boy briefs.   Not much  point in keys, shoes, or underwear if you can’t see where you”re going.glasses-on-table

Collectively and individually, we leave such a trail of things behind us that you have to consider how much we are defined by those things and what we would be without them, from Pezz dispensers to Smartphones.  The snake that leaves its shed skin, the hummingbird that builds, uses, then abandons its jewel of a nest, is still essentially itself minus the skin, the nest.  But a naked, unadorned human is one of the nakedest things there is.  Minus artifacts—even the most primal artifacts of beads and body paint—there is nothing in our essential, outward design to suggest the enormous space behind our eyes and between our ears.

The making of stuff seems to serve us as a sort of overflow valve for a space unable to contain its potential.  Certain manifestations of that overflow provide the usually weekend entertainments of garage and estate sales, flea markets and swap meets.

Other things less fun, too.  Seen all at once (as I lately did  at what was once the home of a friend), spread helter-skelter out of the house that once contained it, the stuff generated by a failed marriage is a jangling testament to the ugly, tangled thing that love and hope can become when fear, disappointment, and betrayal mutate it into rage and hate.

Stuff gets lost.  So do a lot of other things.







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sandy1 001It’s not very often that you can be sure, by almost 100%, that you gave someone everything they could possibly have wanted. That you made them happy. That you gave them a good life.

That is what I’m telling myself, anyway. It’s the best I can do, as things stand. Sometimes you have to take comfort were you can find it.

Like the hobos of yore, needy critters have a knack for finding a dependable handout. I don’t know if they leave marks on the fence posts or there’s a part of the Deep Internet known only to the four-legged, but the word gets around. Sandy first came to me about six months ago. He was a decidedly ragged, fully grown tomcat whose lean and hungry look was underscored by that particular sadness and bewilderment that you see in dumped animals.

You learn to pick the lost and abandoned from the truly wild. Wild kitties—like the two small kittens who showed up here, minus their mother, about a week ago—hide at a glance. Like the possums and raccoons that also occasionally come panhandling, wild kitties raise paranoia to an art, the better to survive a world dense with enemies. Most often, you see only a tail tip as it disappears behind or under something. But abandoned pets usually float just out of reach, their hunger and their fear of yet another betrayal warring with their hope of not only a meal, but the recovery of the thing they’ve lost. They sandy2 001want to come home.

Sandy, his name suggested by the nondescript paleness of his yellow coat and eyes, fit the pattern precisely. He hung back for several months before trusting me to run a hand over his skinny, scabby frame. But his commitment and trust, once offered, were total. Whatever he had lost had come back to him in the shape of a middle-aged, perpetually harried human whose familiarity with dashed hopes and unanswered needs made the yearnings of a stray cat very comprehensible indeed.

Knowing the drill, I dutifully arranged the needed times and procedures at a vet’s, the treatment of hurts, the removal of parasites. As a temporary house guest confined post op to the bathroom, Sandy cheerfully basked in the attentions of whoever opened the door, rolled and purred as we went about our days, rejoiced in his recovered domesticity. When he was well and healed of everything, he happily rejoined my small crew of outdoor cats, contented to know that if he scratched at the screen, I’d usually find a minute to join him on the porch for a round of head and tummy rubs.  Along with steady meals, he wanted no more than that.

I’ll never know why he did what he seemingly never did after he came to me, left the safety of a fenced yard to cross a quiet street on a quiet morning. I missed him for breakfast and found him lying where the truck or whatever it was threw him, just a few feet from my driveway.

I never took any pictures of him, so I’ve had to move quickly to catch my memories with a distracted brush before they vanish, leaving only his name. It cost me very little of time or money to see that he did not die nameless or uncared for, hurt or sick or hungry or cold or lost. But even so, perhaps the positive balance of my karma now weighs a grain more in my favor—although I’d so much rather that Sandy was still with me, that I didn’t keep looking for him and rediscovering that he’s gone.sandy3 001

LMJ 7.1.16

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Mother’s Day

slider1I found this turtle while walking the dog.  The dog saw it first, and I thought at first that it had been hit by a car, since it was only a few inches from the asphalt we were walking on, and not many yards from the tank it must have come from.  It was sitting at an odd angle, and holding perfectly still.  But it wasn’t injured, and appeared to be digging into the soft patch of ground beneath it.  It—she–had apparently found, in a highly unlikely place, what looked to her like the right place to lay her eggs.

She must have done this a few times in her life—she was a good eight or nine inches long,slider2 making her a very decent, I suppose several years old specimen of a slider.  Sliders are one of the commoner North American turtle species.  They’re the ones with the pretty red spots on either side of their heads, and there was a time when thousands of baby sliders were sacrificed yearly to the pet trade—until, luckily for them, it was discovered that they frequently carried salmonella.

The sharp splash of disturbed sliders bailing from their sunning spots on rocks and floating logs is one of the iconic sounds of a southern childhood spent at various fishing holes.  I still look for them when I pass a body of quiet water, and think of sitting beneath swags of Spanish moss while my grandpa demonstrated the proper way to thread a night crawler onto a hook.

But this lady stirred other thoughts and memories.  What she was doing—above all, where he was doing it–was so very dangerous.  So ill-advised.

Barbara Wertheim Tuchman, born 1.30.1912 in --, died 2.06.1989. two time Pulitzer winner (the Guns of August and The Zimmerman Telegram).

Barbara Wertheim Tuchman, born 1.30.1912 in NYC, died 2.06.1989. Two time Pulitzer winner (The Guns of August and Stillwell and the American Experience in China).

Yet motherhood is nothing if not the triumph of faith and hope over reason.  On her wedding day, Barbara Tuchman, future historian extraordinaire, insisted to her new husband that it would be a good idea to start their family immediately—in fact, that night.  Young Dr. Tuchman, who was shipping out the next day to the war in Europe, was taken aback.  It didn’t seem right to him to bring a child into the world while Hitler was still in it.

But as the new Mrs. Tuchman pointed out, there would always be, somewhere,  a Hitler.  And that if everyone waited until the world was free of humanity’s monsters, no child would ever be born.

The motion carried.  Nine months later, the first of several daughters saw the light.

So I wish this turtle well, despite my misgivings.  Mother’s Day—now two weeks past– has always looked to me like an unfelt collective apology and motherhood too often like the mother of all bum deals.  I have seen too much of the condescension and contempt that underlies a lot of the official, self-conscious ballyhooing of motherhood, and I am not alone in this. There’s a reason why a lot of women, from Italy to Japan, are choosing careers over babies—with potentially dire demographic results for the countries in question.

I came back a day later to find this. Don't know if she actually committed to this site or not, but I wasn't about to dig down to see. I'll just have to wait, and hope t be available should the babies need help to make it to safety in the water.

I came back a day later to find this. Don’t know if she actually committed to this site or not, but I wasn’t about to dig down to see. I’ll just have to wait, and hope to be available should the babies need help to make it to the water.

But motherhood, in its unromanticized essence, is arguably the ultimate act of faith.  And it is faith, not despondency, that moves mountains.

LMJ 5.19.16







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Breath Space

ratt 001The time you spend waiting for someone to die is its own unique pause in the continuum of daily life.  That is so even when the death in question is that of a tiny, ancient, nearly black tortoiseshell cat.

She was never the most sociable of people. Seventeen years ago, during my almost final year in grad school, I found her baby self hunkered beneath a bush in front of one of the buildings at my secondary alma mater.  It took a combination of patient coaxing and outright deceit to rescue her, and her gratitude was never much evident. Half wild and eternally suspicious, she was quickly christened The Rat, for what would prove a life-long habit of being glimpsed mostly as a whippy tail retreating under a chair, or a small dark face composed primarily of beady eyes and a pointed nose staring from cover.

But in these last days of her life, she has made it clear that she does not want to die alone.   Last evening, I wrapped her in a towel against an unseasonable spring chill and held her in my lap.  When I went to bed, I took her with me in a shoe box, still wrapped in the towel.  When she became restless, the touch of a hand would quiet her.

I had a few things planned for today, but before this serious business, everything will have to wait.  Death is a large matter, even when it comes in a package that never topped over six pounds.  Today is a breath space before the journey resumes.  I must pause here, waiting for the completion of an event that is as much ritual as fact.

There really are no words in most of our vocabularies for everything that comes to us when that final door proposes to open, even when someone else will be going through it.  In contemplating the life and death of Ms. Madeline Ratt, in trying to voice the weight of time and experience that she has embodied for me in her tiny life as it passed through mine, I’m no more up to it than anyone else.

So I will cop out in favor of thoughts already written—better words and wisdom than I can manage, and no less than she deserves.

I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals….they are so placid

     and self-contained,

I stand and look at them sometimes half the day long.


They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,

Not one is dissatisfied….not one is demented with the mania of owning


Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,

Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.

–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Leaves of Grass, 1855.

Yes.  I think that gets it.

LMJ, 5.2.16





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Fraidy Cat

Strictly speaking, the domestic  cat isn’t a domestic animal.  Individually, perhaps; a super-model skinny Siamese in a jeweled collar or any cat lounging like an Ingres odalisque looks and normally acts about as wild and crazy as the attendees at a home and garden show. But the experts tell us that felis domesticus is more properly a commensalist—a volunteer rather than a draftee in humanity’s circle of furred and feathered retainers.  And as any true cat person will tell you, that constitutes a large part of their charm.

One of history's most famous pinup girls, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' (1780-1867) La Grande Odalisque. Commissioned in 1813 by the queen of Naples. All she needs is a tail, ears, and whiskers.

One of history’s most famous pinup girls, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ (1780-1867) La Grande Odalisque. Commissioned in 1813 by the queen of Naples. All she needs is a tail, ears, and whiskers.

The cat, being a citizen (dogs, fine creatures that they are, are most often slaves) has an upfront agenda—getting free room and board with major medical thrown in.  In return, they will, when they feel like it,  do something about the rodents that also chose to live with humans, but fail to repay us with grace, beauty, and a chorus of purrs when the can opener kicks in.  And there are plenty of cats (in Texas, we call them barn cats, even if they patrol, like three in my acquaintance, the out buildings of a boutique winery) who feel it best to make the arrangement strictly business.  Which means

Now tell me you don't see it.

Now tell me you don’t see it.

that the humans involved must rightly do a once-a-year kitty roundup, live-trapping the help for the sake of shots, worming, and general inspection for need or damage.

But there are situations in between that don’t fit neatly into anyone’s agenda, more’s the pity.

Less than a year ago, a threesome of wild kittens showed up here minus their mother.   They were old enough to survive without her, yet really too young to be on their own.  Needing neither barn cats nor an ungoverned population of wild cats, I set about the business of winning the hearts and minds involved with regular food, dependable water, and the patience that cat people learn when trying to do a favor for a suspicious commensalist.

I was soon reminded, as you commonly are in such undertakings, of the limits of good will; one kitten, a little grey tom, was promptly killed by a car.  The surviving two, baptized Fritz and Frieda Fraidy Cat, hung on, just out of reach, until Fritz came over, turned into a love kitty, and then vanished without a trace a week after his first trip to the vet’s.  That left a diminutive, wild-eyed ball of fluff who ran if I so much as glanced at her, hiding until I was inside before coming out to eat.  There was no way to hurry the process, but spring was coming; for little girl Frieda, the biological clock was ticking.  Frieda needed a trip to the vet before the alarm went off.

Frieda F. Single mom-to -be.

Frieda F. Single mom-to -be.

When it did, it was like having to watch a bewildered 13-year-old nymphet being mobbed by a gang of horny bikers. Cats are nothing if not secretive; the number of tom cats who showed up to answer the ultimate call of the wild was astonishing, and the result predictable—non-stop, 24/7  cat fights, a front porch that whiffed like the lion house at the zoo, and finally a half-grown kitten with a swelling mid-section.

Maybe it was hormones, or the realization that a single mom can always use friends.  Many weeks pregnant, Frieda finally accepted my good intentions, going almost instantaneously from fraidy cat to clingy cat.  It wasn’t ideal, but it would do.  As tiny as she was, the litter would probably be a small one, and I could socialize the kittens and find homes for them while arranging for their teenage mom to spend the rest of her days as a bachelor girl.

That last part remains on the table.  Just that.

A week ago, I came home from an errand to find Frieda utterly confounded by the miracle of birth.  She looked at me with frightened eyes as the second of three kittens tried to fight its way out of her tiny body.  Mama cats are generally the best of mothers, knowing what to do from beginning to end; but Frieda clearly knew nothing.  I brought her inside, made her comfortable, cut the cords on the second two kittens (the first had apparently been born dead).  To no avail.  Frieda wanted nothing to do with any of it.  Even my emergency purchase of tiny baby bottles and kitten-specific formula accomplished nothing.  By the next evening, the kittens were dead.

A sad exercise in futility. The box, so tiny, holds an even tinier occupant. One whom I could not save.

An especially sad exercise in futility. The box, so tiny, held an even tinier occupant. One whom I could not save.

Fear is said to be a gift, and I suppose it is a lot of the time.  Fear keeps us out of trouble, keeps us alive, by steering us away from danger.

But it costs a lot too.  Like help when we need it, and deliverance from things we just can’t handle—especially, things we can’t handle alone.

–LMJ, 4.14.16

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DB, hot as hell as the Goblin King in Labyrinth, 19--.

DB, hot as hell as Jareth the Goblin King in Labyrinth, 1989.  One of Jim Henson’s most delightfully scary productions, replete of weird creatures and surreal visuals.

David Bowie handled being famous about as well as anyone can in a hyper-nosy and envious age. Staying ahead of his own curve probably had a lot to do with it; he never held still long enough for anyone to catch and classify him, which is one smart way to approach any endeavor that necessarily involves being personally famous.

This is not a problem that most of us are ever likely to have, although a lot of people seem to aspire to it. Fame as an end in itself, fame for no particular reason, has become pathologically attractive in an age in which access to YouTube is all that’s necessary to get one’s 15 minutes.

For a slightly paranoid, aspiring hermit like me, this is the height of insanity. The nail that stands up is the one that the hammer will find, and thanks to the Internet, there are now a darn lot of hammers out there–most of them in the hands of those for whom trolling offers a quick and easy way of attracting the attention that is as close as they’ll ever get to achieving personal fame.  Likewise a ready means for the untalented and unaccomplished to lash out with impunity at those who are not so undistinguished.

Still, there are forms of fame that I find worth coveting—ones that would baffle the envy of even the most rapacious, ego-ridden troll. With that in mind, allow me to introduce Aponopelma johnnycashi—the Johnny Cash tarantula.

Apomophema johnnycashi, courtesy of the BBC. Not sure how big this guy is.

Aponopelma johnnycashi, courtesy of the BBC. They didn’t mention how big this guy is.  But I’m impressed.

A recent revision and tidying up of the family tree of the tarantula genus Aponopelma yielded the discovery of 14 new tarantula species in the American south. One of them occurs abundantly in the state of California in the area of Folsom prison, and the adult males of the species are stylishly dressed in black.

This juxtaposition caught the attention of a researcher on the project, one Dr. Chris Hamilton ( now attached to the Florida Museum of Natural history), who saw in it a unique opportunity to express his devotion to the Man in Black. The naming of creatures is a weighty and significant business—witness the prominence given the act in the Book of Genesis—and it’s not often that a fan can arrange such a lasting tribute to an artist. As monuments go, this one partakes of immortality as much as any such thing can. A fact that would not be lost on the man whose final encounter with his own mortality yielded such a profound result.


I do see a certain resemblance between man and spider–an observation that I offer as a compliment, since I’m rather fond of spiders. Especially jumping spiders, which,  up close, look like the Cookie Monster.

The business of creation is often, very often, less a matter of finding what you need to work with than of using what you’ve got, and it takes more than most of us can muster to find in our own impending death the stuff of beauty and enlightenment. The songs that The Man sang at the end were heavy with the understandings that can come only when the time is short and the weight of memory and experience too pressing to be denied. That signature voice, weakened by pain and illness and loss, thereby gained a power that could have been achieved in no other way. It simultaneously wrings and seduces the heart.

We could stand to recover the old Greek concept of, and reverence for, the lyric poet—the definition that Homer had in mind when he described how Odysseus, having  cleared his house of the suitors who had come in his absence to  infest his estate and besiege his wife, found himself dealing with two of the defunct suitors’ hangers on. One was a priest, the other a poet.

For Odysseus, it was a no-brainer. He killed the priest but spared the poet. The priest, he said, only served the gods. But the poet had his gift from God.

It is not often that modern poets get back anything even close to what they give. But perhaps for once, the scale balances. Aponopelma johnnycashi, on its eight long hairy legs, will carry the memory of its namesake into unguessed quarters of time and place, memorializing a poet beyond the reach of all those small souls whose dreams of fame are ultimately as graceless as a baby’s tantrum and as vapid as a junkie’s smile.

LM Johnson, 03.14.16

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Being Naked

last leafThe word is—according to a certain ground hog—that spring will come early this year.

But I live in Texas. And here, spring is official only when those wisest of trees, the mesquite and pecan, leaf out. Normally, this doesn’t happen until well past Easter, so we’ll be looking at naked trees for a while yet—unless you count the live oaks, which can be depended on to keep some green in the landscape even in the dead of winter.

An old cemetery is apt to protect the ancient living as it is to give undisturbed repose to the dead. This live oak would need about three average sized people to get their arms around it. Its been where it is long enough to grow around some very old headstones.

An old cemetery is as apt to protect the ancient living as it is to give undisturbed repose to the dead. This live oak would need about three average sized people to get their arms around it. Its been where it is long enough to grow around some very old headstones.

They’re cagey trees; they do a quick striptease in the spring, almost simultaneously shedding their old leaves and putting on a new crop before going dormant for the summer. I think the druids, whose knowledge was said to come from their own Old World oaks, would have regarded the New World live oak with a particular reverence. In the winter forests of Europe, only those iconic pagan plants, the evergreen holly and ivy, the mistletoe and the pine, make visible the promise of continuing life during the cold months after the winter solstice. A being like the live oak that not only stays green year round, but has figured out how to keep the mystery of its ultimate self so well-hidden, would’ve blown them away.

live oak 2The architecture of a live oak is obvious only in the most ancient specimens, whose trunks have a muscular, antediluvian quality that speaks of the patience needed to endure time and heavy weather in mind-numbing quantities. But for most other trees—including other oaks—winter is the season of revelation. It is only then that the above ground structure of trees large and small can be fully seen and appreciated.

Looking up into the soaring latticework of empty branchesbig oak 1 against a winter sky is like standing under the arching vault of a Gothic cathedral. It is a world above the human world. By day, it is a realm of wind and silence punctuated by the occasional fretful bark of a squirrel or the cries of over-wintering birds. By night it is a star-hung eyrie for hunting owls, a fishing net that snares the moon. The rustle of leaves is absent, replaced by the creak of limbs and the dry rattle of big oak 2twig on twig. The summer chorus of singing insects is still.

The mysterious details that even a small tree can conceal are open to inspection. The song bird’s nest that was hidden at waist height by summer leaves is suddenly, astonishingly, there. How could you and every cat in the neighborhood have overlooked it?

Even now, this carefully constructed bundle of twigs could be overlooked, if it was in a bigger tree.

Even now, this carefully constructed bundle of twigs could go unnoticed, if it was in a bigger tree.

canvas Reading Tree 002

The Reading Tree. Original acrylic on canvas miniature by LM Johnson, 2016.

Most song birds do not reuse their nests. This one, it’s mission accomplished,  will fall apart in the course of a new year’s storms. The trees will recover their leaves and their mystery, giving shelter to all the creatures who live in their embrace and shade to those who contemplate our time and lives from the sanctuary of their roots.–LM Johnson, 02.17.16

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